Vegan Options are Not Animal Liberation
By Hana Low
A well-known animal advocacy organization recently produced and published a humorous video gently mocking vegan consumerism. Widely shared and discussed by members of the vegan community, the video could have functioned as a viral advertisement promoting Whole Foods, and might as well have been produced by Whole Foods’ own robust marketing department. While satirical, the video does highlight some real limitations of how the animal rights movement is often framed.
In the video, entitled “29 Thoughts Every Vegan Has at Whole Foods," a young white man in his early thirties is shown on the telephone with his friend, saying that he is going to drop into Whole Foods to pick up some coffee. The next minute and a half of the video consists of him meandering about the grocery store, admiring produce and ogling various corporate goods. Mysteriously, he manages not to meander into any department that sells animal products— even though the chain generates $2.4 billion in meat sales and sells millions of animal bodies each year. He is so enthralled by the “vegan options” in the store that he selects and buys several products that he says he doesn’t even need.
The video succeeds in painting vegans as class-privileged, frivolous, shallow consumerist yuppies, rather than activists fighting for total animal liberation. This is a systemic problem in the animal rights movement, which tends to celebrate vegan options and treatment-centered reforms that in some cases strengthen industry by quelling criticism of animal slaughter. Judging by how he was depicted, the man in the video might not have been an ethical vegan or cared about animals at all. He gave no attention whatsoever to animal advocacy, only the consumer choices in front of him. The video did not educate about violence against animals, discourage buying animal products, or invite food justice activists who care about affordable healthy food access into our movement, which is often plagued by the myth that buying expensive specialty foods is necessary to eat a plant-based diet.
Some animal advocates will respond to these words with some feelings of frustration, saying that being vegan is taking direct action for animals. And while eschewing animal products is certainly the moral baseline, because eating animal products is not ethical, it is only the beginning. All we are doing, in being vegan, is preventing a few more dollars from going into the pockets of animal agriculture. Our impact on weakening the system is negligible. Each of our independent consumer choices little impact on animal agriculture.
This article isn’t about boycotting Whole Foods. Most people don’t live in an area that has an all-vegan grocery store, and vegan grocery stores, if they do exist where we live, often don’t have all of the staples that we need and often are more expensive than their not-exclusively-vegan counterparts. So while supporting all-vegan businesses is admirable, that’s not our request.
Vegans must always keep in mind that a corporation or restaurant that is “vegan-friendly” may not be "animal-friendly.” A steakhouse or a dairy ice cream parlor could be “vegan-friendly” if it offers a vegan meal or ice cream flavor that vegan humans can buy and eat. But just because a place has “vegan options” for your consumer pleasure doesn’t mean that it does not perform acts of tremendous violence and exploitation to nonhuman animals. Don’t let the halo effect of those swanky vegan options pacify you and prevent you, a human with a voice, from speaking out against violence and remembering that veganism is but one part of liberating animals.
Because we are only 2% of the population, our boycott has a limited impact and doesn’t even rescue animals from death. We must empower and educate others. Many of us have only begun to participate in the lifelong and multistep process of animal liberation:
- Boycott (refuse to financially support industries that exploit animals for food, clothing, entertainment, research).
- Disrupt speciesism (speak out to stop violence against animals).
- Save lives (by financially and physically supporting animal sanctuaries and fostering or adopting animals ourselves, so the survivors of these systems of exploitation can live lives free from violence).
Animal advocates should always center their actions and rhetoric around the plight of the animals, and their stories of both oppression and liberation. The video, though it was produced and published by an animal advocacy organization, did not even mention the exploitation of animals. Animal liberationists aren’t doing this work because the food is tastier or the clothes are more fashionable. We do this because nonhuman animal voices are silenced, and because we are liberationists fighting for human and nonhuman self-determination, bodily autonomy and justice.
Whole Foods, and other animalmongers that market themselves as green, ethical, compassionate companies, do not care about animals. Whole Foods cares about profit, whether the dollars they are generating come from vegans or animal eaters; so, they engage in expensive and complex humanewashing to deceive us all. We as a movement should be aware of how vegan consumerism and non-animal-centered messaging bolster Whole Foods’ reputation and play into their bloody hands.